How do the UK’s top grassland managers make the best silage in Wales? Answer: it’s not just about Kelvin Cave products, but they certainly help!
According to the British Grassland Society, dairy farmers, Aled and Owain Rees, are currently the best grassland farmers in the UK. And as if this were not accolade enough, last year, they also made the best clamp silage in Wales. This was the verdict of the Federation of Welsh Grassland Societies, whose top award added to the evidence that the Rees family don’t just know how to grow and manage grass, but they know how to harvest and preserve it to the highest possible standard. This is all the more remarkable when it’s considered that both these accomplishments were achieved under an organic system, with all the limitations on inputs this involves. In particular, it meant no bagged nitrogen but a complete reliance on slurry and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the clover-rich swards.
Yet, despite the constraints, the Reeses’ grassland produced an average of 10.7 tonnes of dry matter (DM) per hectare in last year’s drought conditions and their organic silage saw off the challengers from conventional systems. And the prize-winning silage – whose analysis was only part of the judges’ reasoning – weighed in with a D-value of 75, metabolisable energy of 11.8MJ/kg DM, crude protein of 15.9% and dry matter of 34%. All of this is good news for the father and son team, who farm in partnership with Aled’s wife, Hedydd, and uncle, David Jenkins, at Treclyn Isaf in Eglwyswrw, North Pembrokeshire, and who highly rate the importance of forage. Here, they have invested heavily in the family’s farming future, including in tracks and troughs for improved rotational grazing management, three new silage clamps, a 280-head cubicle house and a 54-point DeLaval rotary parlour. Today, the family farm 950 acres (385ha) of both owned and rented, arable and grassland. And their 320 Holstein Friesian milkers are split block calved in spring and autumn – on dates which are designed not just for ease of management but to avoid calving during the all-consuming process of making silage.
The 54-point DeLaval rotary parlour.
Milk from forage
Of the herd’s 7,700kg average production at 4.2% fat and 3.5% protein, an impressive 3,800kg (49%) comes from forage, according to Kingshay costings. This is the be-all-and-end-all, according to Owain, who studied agriculture at Hartpury, and says: “Milk from forage is directly related to costs of production, and there’s a direct correlation between COPs and profitability.” The herd’s financial performance bears this out, with a margin over purchased feed (12-month rolling average to June ’23) of 37.44p/litre. And this is in spite of the high price of organic feed, which – at a feed rate of 1.7 tonnes/cow/year – was calculated to be costing the farm around £200,000 per year more than conventional feed. In addition, Owain says: “If you have good silage you can feed a 16% protein nut compared with 18-21% if not.”
Although the price of organic feed may have been the last straw which pushed the Reeses back into conventional farming this July, it was the expansion of the farm that was the driver of this change. “We went organic in 2000, and at that time, there was no opportunity for expansion, so the only way to make a better living was to get a better milk price,” explains Aled, who saw the organic milk premium rise and fall over subsequent years. But having since had the chance to buy and rent extra acres and develop the business, they now see their future in producing more litres, farming in a regenerative way and selling to First Milk. “Coming from an organic background, we don’t see a lot of difference in farming regeneratively,” says Aled, who has always considered soil health to be a top priority in running a sustainable and productive farm. Farming on heavy clay, the herd’s grazing season typically runs from mid-March to mid-September, and sheep on tack are used as a management tool over winter, coming off the fields between Christmas and New Year. “They may stay a little longer now we’re not organic but we aim to apply slurry in mid-February, using a dribble bar,” says Owain. At a rate of 2,500-3,000 gallons per acre, and boosted by an additive which captures more of the slurry’s nutrient value and improves its consistency, this is the only fertiliser typically applied before first cut. Aiming to cut at least by 3-4 May, last year’s winning sample was made on 28-29 April.
Don’t wait for bulk
“You can get caught out waiting for bulk and before you know it, it’s mid-May,” says Owain. “You may have a bulkier crop but you’ve lost out on quality, especially if you have limited fertiliser, slow growth and a cold spring.” Now committed to a multi-cut system of four or five cuts, this is said to be key to maintaining forage quality. Moving away from organic has also opened the way for changing fertiliser use, but Aled insists: “We do not want to go from organic to just chucking it on, especially since we know our organic soils are full of favourable bacteria and fungi and we know adding nitrogen will reduce that biodiversity. “And another good reason to limit our nitrogen is our heavy reliance on clover,” he adds. In fact, the team have used the services of a soil scientist for many years, using products such as granulated lime to optimise pH, Tunisian soft rock phosphate, humic acid to assist in the plant’s nutrient uptake, Epsom salts, whose micronutrients help create chlorophyll for photosynthesis, Sea-90 minerals which are claimed to be higher in trace elements than any other salt, and carefully balancing their soils’ calcium and magnesium ratio. An important feature of the post-organic strategy will be foliar applications of urea-based nitrogen which require substantially lower application rates than a solid product. “We’ve already dabbled in foliar,” says Owain. “We won’t apply it until we can see the third leaf, which is usually about 14 days after cutting.” “Dry spells seem to have been the norm since 2018 and recovery is twice as fast in these conditions with foliar applications,” adds Aled.
When it comes to silage making, although some rules are strict, others are flexible and dependent on conditions. “We don’t cut if it’s raining and get very upset if we see soil contamination,” says Aled, who operates the tedder but says some cuts won’t be turned at all. “We run seven mowers – one butterfly and two doubles – as we want to cut at the optimum time and at speed, but sometimes that means it’s a job for me to keep up. “And because we’ve been organic our grass has a higher dry matter,” he adds. “So, although we’ll almost always ted first cut, we may not ted second cut – which we didn’t this year. “There are no hard-and-fast rules, but we try not to let it get too dry.” Also praising contractors, Emyr Evans Agri Contracting, he says their machinery is generally new and large, and breakdowns are rare. “We work with him very closely and make it as easy for him as we can,” says Aled. “If he can cut 250 acres a day, he will.”
Activator + CA
Wilting is always from 12 to 24 hours and never longer, and the contractor rows up, picks up, and applies the all-important additive, Kelvin Cave’s Activator + CA, which is approved for organic certification. Aled says: “We’d previously used a different inoculant but tried, unsuccessfully, for many years to overcome problems with it, working with its manufacturer. But when we switched to Activator Plus, and later, Activator + CA, we found the problems were resolved and the silage never heats up. So, we’re sticking with it, even after we’re no longer organic.” The absence of heating, spoilage and waste, as well as the Reeses’ tidy clamp management, all contributed to the judges’ final selection when they came to look at the farm. The new clamps themselves also impressed, with no cracks in the concrete and drainage to one collection tank from which a submersible pump can send dirty water back to the fields through a sprinkler system. Thoroughly cleaning the pit before filling and lining both back and side walls with heavy gauge sheeting are also considered essential, along with a focus on compaction and sheeting as quickly as possible. “We use O2 Barrier 2in1, and having two sheets in one makes the process a lot quicker and easier, especially with an outdoor clamp,” says Aled, who uses netting, mats and sidewall tyres to finish the job.
Focus on what you can control
Silage making is one job of many which is carried out with proper research and investment and meticulous Above: Nitrogen use is limited on the clover-rich swards. 01458 252 281 9 attention to detail at Treclyn Isaf. And Aled believes that by continually improving the process, as well as his grassland management, he should be able to grow over 12t DM/hectare now that he’s switched from organic, improving the farm’s efficiency and potentially allowing him to shed some rented acres. As the Reeses’ farm advisor, Grant Hartman, points out, investing in grassland and silage is an investment well made. “Whatever your enterprise or system, forage quality is key,” he says. “And especially today – with so much pressure on milk price – it’s important for farmers to focus on the things they can control, and that’s definitely their forage quality.”
Treclyn Isaf farm facts
• 950 acres (385ha) family-run enterprise in North Pembrokeshire
• 320 Holstein Friesians giving 7,700kg including 3,800kg (49%) from forage
• Reverting to conventional farming in 2023 after 20 years organic
• British Grassland Society Grassland Farmer of the Year (2022)
• Silage quality and processes judged best in Wales (2022)
• Organic and conventional silage preserved with Activator + CA and sheeted with O2 2in1 Barrier.
• 16% protein concentrates in and out of parlour with silage in winter
• Parlour concentrates plus total mixed ration as buffer feed in summer